In late 2012, a few guys named Simon Ford, Dushan Zaric, and Jason Kosmas launched a booze line under the banner 86 Company Spirits. For those of you who don’t know, 86 is restaurant slang for either we’ve run out (“86 lobster, we’re subbing shrimp”) or we threw someone out (“Guy on 22 was drooling like a basset hound and tried to pay in nickels, so we 86’d him.”)
All three of these guys come from the bar, and wanted to create a spirits company specifically accommodating to bartenders. So in this case, the 86 refers to “86 the bullshit.” As in, we are going to tell you exactly what is in our products, exactly how we made it, in what proportions and in what amount of time. No apocryphal yellowing recipes, no arbitrary ties to great men of history, no juju magic. Here is what we make, here is how, here is why.
That why is important. The transparency alone would be enough, but the fact that each of these products has a why — a real reason to exist — is what makes them so special.
There are way too many craft distillers making vodka and gin and shitty white whiskey and 9 month old bourbon just to do it, and their products neither taste better, nor are meaningfully different, than what is already abundantly available. This is why so many of them attempt to tie themselves to Napoleon or Hemingway for no reason at all, and why so many of them claim that their recipe dates to the 18th century, even though they’ve only been making it for 9 fucking months. And this is why the 86 Co. products are so refreshing. Each stands on its own merits, and each one (save, of course, for the vodka) is made to satisfy a cocktail need that had, up until now, been unmet.
If you’ve ever stood within earshot of the cyclonic bloviations of liquor marketing you’ll know that almost everyone says their products are designed “specifically for cocktails,” but in this case, it is fundamentally true: when creating them, the Ford and Zaric let the needs of the cocktail shape the spirit, not the other way around.
I’m not going to write everything about them. They have been extensively reviewed all over the web, to say nothing of fact that every production detail about them can be found on the website, or, handily, on the labels themselves. But a couple weeks ago, Dushan himself came to Kettner Exchange to give us a little training on their wonderful line, and there are a few interesting things that are worthy of special note.
Caña Brava Rum
First things first: daiquiris (rum + lime juice + sugar) are amazing. In the desperate yearning heart of every 2oz of rum is the unspoken desire to be turned into a daiquiri. Yes, rum is mixed with other stuff sometimes, but it never really wants to be. It wants to be a daiquiri. Because daiquiris are amazing.
So, the goal with Caña Brava was to create an authentic, prohibition-era Cuban style light rum, a robust, dry spirit bottled at higher proof so to shine in daiquiris. They went to Don Poncho Fernandez, who was the master blender of Havana Club for decades and is now in Panama (making him, let’s just say, a Panamaniac), and together created Caña Brava. Apparently Dushan showed up to the distillery with sacks of limes and boxes of sugar, and made daiquiris with each rum sample until they nailed it.
It is extremely dry, allowing you to manage your own sweetness. It’s bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, providing cocktail infrastructure, and it has a mid-palate explosion, the point in the tasting experience where most drinks suffer. It makes a brilliant daiquiri, and is, therefore, an enormous success.
Note: Loyal readers will recall I once wrote something similar about Banks 5 Rum, and indeed, these two products aspire to the same thing. The difference, then, is in how they try to get there: Banks blends in Indonesian Arrack for a dynamic and wholly original flavor profile, while Caña Brava aims at recreating the Cuban style straight through distillation. They’re almost too different to compare, but I can say that the two products make daiquiris that taste nothing alike and yet are both enormously tasty.
Made at the Thames distillery in London, Ford’s aims to be the ultimate cocktail gin: to be good for Tom Collins’, good for Negronis, good for Martinis, and to work with both lemon and lime. I admit, this education was the first I’d ever heard of this lemon vs. lime business — apparently some gins work better with lemon and some with lime, which through some deficit of palate or experience, I’ve never encountered (it’s also always possible that’s not a real thing, but honestly, I’m inclined to trust Dushan’s palate over my own).
In any event, they experimented with oil extraction and botanical steep time until they got it just right, at 15hrs. Its viscosity and balance is ideal for martinis (it was the best London Dry Gin in the Great Martini Experiements). Like the rum, it has a mid-palate explosion of flavor. Because gin is all about specific tastes at specific strengths, much of it falls to personal preference. What I will say is that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with its legendary peers, which is, for a London Dry Gin, the biggest compliment I have to give.
The tequila is bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, which in and of itself gives it broad shoulders. But more than that, they wanted a tequila that could present a bold agave flavor even when mixed. The agave is the most delicate flavor and the first to get drowned out, Dushan complained, and too often you’ll have a margarita that has all the pepper and vegetal notes and creaminess of the tequila, but no agave.
They went to El Ranchito distillery in the highlands, NOM1414, and worked with the distiller to craft the product. They found the tequila can only be made in the winter, interestingly, when the temperature is lower and fermentation can happen more slowly, because only a long fermentation can give the flavors they wanted. So after about 10 days of fermentation, it’s distilled to industry standard 55%, cut back to 43%, and bottled.
Taken neat, it’s a bit rougher than it’s peers, probably because of those proof points. But those are what makes it pop in cocktails, with a giant mid-palate agave sweetness, a bit of bitterness from the extra booze, and a nice creamy texture. Very cool, utterly unique.
Aylesbury Duck Vodka
… is vodka. I don’t know. It’s good vodka. It’s well priced and well made and it’s not hurting anyone. Plus, the label is funny.
Trivia: I had always assumed the term 86 was some antiquated computer code or something, but apparently it’s at least 70 years old and no one actually knows how it came about. There are several competing theories, and they are all equally unsatisfying.
More Trivia: I wrote “juju magic” up there because it felt right in the sentence, then got nervous because I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of slur. In the process of looking into that, my googling took me to The Racial Slur Database, an organization that for some bizarre reason categorizes these things. They have a search bar, or you can just browse by ethnic group. They have a homepage feature, “Racial Slur of the Day.” In the submission section, they take pains to remind you that only racial slurs will be accepted, and gender and sexuality slurs are strictly prohibited.
I have nothing more to report on this, just that it exists and I find that fact endlessly amusing.
I know several people who probably followed this link just to tell me that there is no problem with the Martini, that it is the Platonic ideal of gin cocktails and God’s Perfect Drink. Let me first tell you that I agree, for the most part, that a well-made Martini is a radiant and profound drink, and also that you’re wrong, there is indeed a problem, but it has nothing to do with taste.
Get 20 cocktail bartenders in a room and ask them all for a recipe, and you might get a little individual variance.
Ask for a Last Word, and you’ll get the same thing from everyone. A Corpse Reviver #2, and there might be a little trembling on whether to use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano, but the ratios will be the same. I have, embarrassingly, killed a whole drunken hour arguing about whether it’s lemon or lime juice in a Southside, but again, it’s essentially the same drink.
But the Martini. The goddamn Martini. The Martini diffusion is hopeless.
Everyone agrees on the principle ingredients: a martini is gin, dry vermouth, (sometimes) orange bitters, stirred, up, with a lemon peel. If you disagree with any of this, I invite you to explore your wrongness in the footnote(1) at bottom.
But it’s not that easy, because look it up 10 times and you’ll get 8 different ratios, the range of which is both hilarious and absurd. Just gin and vermouth, right? How much of each? Consider the list below, which is the Martini ratio given in all the books I have at home, plus a bit of google poking. I didn’t cherry pick these. These are the first 15 I found:
Ratio of Gin to Vermouth
1:1 — Edmund Spencer, via The Flowing Bowl, 1898 (+orange bitters)
2:1 — Sam Ross, via Bartender’s Choice (app)
3:1 — Jim Meehan, via PDT Cocktail Book
3:1 — Death & Co. Cocktail Book (+orange bitters)
3:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
4:1 — Andre Domine, via Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails
5:1 — David Wondrich, via Epicurious (+orange bitters)
5:1 — Simon Ford, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
5:1 — Gary Regan, via Joy of Mixology
6:1 — International Bartender Association (IBA)
6:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Food Republic (+orange bitters)
6:1 — Dale Degroff, via The Essential Cocktail
8:1 — Ted Haigh, via CocktailDB.com
10(+):1 — Cookworks, via FoodNetwork
10(+):1 — David Wondrich, via Esquire
You’ll notice that some people don’t even agree with themselves. I want to make the best drinks I can, and this list gets me no closer to the perfect Martini than I was before.
So I did what any sensible person would do: I made them all. Over the course of about 6 weeks, I made every ratio, with every gin I have at home, across two different vermouths, with and without orange bitters. And then I drank them.
So Who’s Right?
Possibly everyone. Or at least, everyone between 5:1 and 1:1. Also maybe no one. Because, as it turns out, there is no single perfect recipe. The ideal recipe varies wildly from gin to gin, and further depends on your dry vermouth, and even further, likely, personal taste.
To find the best ratio, first assess what you’re looking for: a good martini radiates out of the glass. It shines like a diamond. It is a strong, bracing drink, that nonetheless charms you with impeccable balance and clarity of flavor, a harmonic resonance that’s remarkable when hit just right. So make everything between 1:1 and 5:1. Then try again, this time with orange bitters. Find your champion, make sure to write it down (you’re pretty drunk by now), and write off the moral cost of today’s inebriation as a learning experience (the story of my damn life).
Eight gins in all, and here are my last page conclusions, sorted by my personal preference:
(1) Beyond 5:1, you’re just drinking cold gin.
(2) When the vermouths did disagree, Dolin almost always wanted to be a bigger part of the drink than Noilly Prat. It also tasted better every time.
(3) Orange bitters works with more juniper-forward gins, like Beefeater and Fords. In the others it made the flavors less clear.
(3a)… with the obvious exception of Hendrick’s, which was admittedly a very close call, maybe the closest of this whole experiment.
(4) If you’ve got to guess, go 3:1. It was best 5 of the 8 times, and even when it wasn’t best, it was never bad.
(5) Even my least favorite of the eight, Hendrick’s, was still damn tasty at 3:1 with orange bitters. A well made Martini is a wonderful drink.
My Favorite Martini
2.25oz Aviation Gin (for elegance/licorice accents) or Tanqueray 10 (for brighter fruit accents)
0.75oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
Stir briskly in a mixing glass, over ice, for about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled Martini glass, and express the oils of a lemon peel over the top.
Notes from the Martini Trials:
1st (tie): Aviation Gin, 3:1
More licorice, like licorice candy (good & plenty). Bubblegum. Has an elegance that’s hard to touch. Deep and strong and balanced. 2:1 with orange bitters was a close second… it had more flavor, but muddied the clarity of 3:1 without bitters. Savory. Wonderful.
1st (tie): Tanqueray 10, 3:1
Made with whole orange, grapefruit, and limes, as well as chamomile, this had a much more citrus forward clarity. Lemon Starbursts. “All kinds of candied citrus,” I wrote, “I could drink these all the time.” Radiant. Dynamic. This pops.
3rd: The Botanist, 1:1
Nice sweetness. Surprisingly balanced at 1:1. How weird. The gin complements the vermouth very well, and makes the overall cocktail almost savory. This is a great drink.
4th: Ford’s Gin, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
Nose is great. 1:1 without bitters was actually pretty good here too, but 3:1 with takes the day. Probably my favorite of the classic London Dry style martinis.
5th: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength, 5:1
Nice cucumber dryness. This is the gin in which I actually taste cucumber, and that note is highlighted here, as opposed to masked. This is an example of why gin martinis are so cool.
6th: Plymouth, 4:1 + Orange Bitters
Very nicely textured. Orange bitters bring a candied orange flavor that’s quite nice, and make it a little front heavy. This is very nice but not extraordinarily memorable, like a white dress shirt.
7th: Beefeater, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
At its most balanced. It’s still a little raw, but 2:1 is too weak and 4:1 is too much. It’s a stiff, tasty drink, meant for those who want their drinks stiff and tasty, and care about those adjectives in that order.
8th: Hendricks, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
This was a really tight choice between orange bitters and not. 1:1 was good too, but a little tart. 3:1 had nice acidity, mouthwatering. Clean. Floral. Probably cleaner without bitters than with, but I thought the round orange flavor made it more dynamic.
• • • • • • •
(1) A Martini is made with gin and vermouth. It doesn’t matter at all that 95% of the “martinis” I’m asked to make are with vodka. This is a gin drink. If you want a 5oz cone of 19°F vodka, fouled with tepid olive brine and made murky by lactose wisps of dissolving cheese, fine, but a martini it ain’t.
(2) Martinis may or may not contain orange bitters. Orange bitters are traditional, satisfying the original requirement of being called a cocktail, but most people these days choose to omit them. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not. We’ll deal with it case by case.
(3) A Martini is stirred, not shaken. If you shake it, you lose the velvety texture, overdilute it, and make it all turbid & ugly. James Bond has gauche taste and he should keep it to his fucking self.
(4) Our garnish will be a lemon twist, not olives. I hate olives. Sorry. Bias.
(5) Yeah, I’m really using footnotes.
While I am a person who enjoys beer, I am not a Beer Person.
How do I know I’m not a Beer Person? Because I have no opinion on the Fuggle hop. Because I can and do drink Miller High Life in public, I don’t know what flavor crystal malt imparts, and I don’t give a single lonely fuck if you serve me a saison in a pint glass. I’m not proud of my ignorance, nor am I ashamed. I just don’t care that much. Because I’m not a Beer Person.
The corollary is that I don’t get to try the worlds best beers, because I’m not willing to do things like fly to Belgium, or even really set an alarm. The beer I drink is the beer of convenience; it is the beer that is already in my path.
That being said, when my excellent friend Justin Platt gifted me a bottle of the elusive Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, I admit, I got Christmas-morning excited.
Dark Lord Day:
The Dark Lord is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, and sugar, weighing in at around 15% alcohol. It is available for exactly one day a year, Dark Lord Day, the last Saturday in April, and only at Three Floyd’s Brewery, in Munster, Indiana.
To get it, you have to perch yourself online for the moment tickets go on sale, as they will sell out very quickly. You are allowed to buy two tickets. The ticket is $30, and doesn’t get you the beer, but rather earns you the opportunity to buy the beer. Upon showing up on Dark Lord Day (itself a beerfest with live music and such), you’re sorted into groups A-E, and when your group is called, you wait in line for the privilege of buying one (1) allotment of Dark Lord, which is between 2 and 4 bottles, depending on that year’s yield.
And if that all seems like a giant pain in the ass, consider this: the two variants of Dark Lord currently sit at #8 and #11 on ratebeer.com‘s Best Beers Ever list, and #8 and #61 on beeradvocate’s. Which is why it’s not something I’d fly to Indiana for, but it’s something I’ll absolutely fucking drink.
Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout:
This beer was seriously amazing. Sits heavy. Mouthfeel like heavy cream. Caramel, obviously, but also a very pleasant fig/dried fruit presence. Darker fruits like plums show up too. Not very bitter, a balancing presence is all. Lots and lots of complexity. And as I settled into it, the dominant flavor for me turned to be milk chocolate, probably because of the mouthfeel. “So much damn chocolate,” I wrote. Coffee and vanilla integrated seamlessly. Crazy good. A+.
A warm thank you to Justin for this bottle. What a cool experience. California’s a bit far, but if I still lived in Chicago, I can see driving an hour for this.
“It’s not easy. It’s not simple. And there’s no way to make it faster or better.” — Martin Daraz, of Highland Park Distillery
Distillery: Highland Park distillery
Location: Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Owned By: Edrington Group (also owns Famous Grouse, Macallan, and a couple others)
Origin: Allegedly founded in 1798. Actually founded in 1826.
A Sense of Place:
No matter which way you’re headed, the Highland Park distillery, on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, is out of your way. From Glasgow, you would head 300 miles north to the seaside port of Scrabster, the northernmost port on mainland Britain, and somewhere that sounds, to me, like a place where you could get punched just for having a full set of teeth. There, you catch the 2 hour Northlink ferry to the tempestuously named Stromness, on an island known as “Mainland,” head east for half an hour, and there you find Highland Park, waiting to reward your journey.
Orkney is an archipelago of some 70 islands off the northernmost tip of Scotland. In terms of latitudinal brothers, we’re talking about Oslo, St. Petersberg, Stockholm, and Juneau, Alaska — historically not whisky hotspots, but the fact that it’s an island tempers the seasons: winter temperatures range tightly between 34°F-45°F, and summer average high stretches to a giddy 61°F. It’s the northernmost distillery in Scotland, and everyone who goes — from the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas to travel writers today — say to be in Orkney feels like the edge of the world.
Highland Park was allegedly founded in 1798 by a butcher, church-official, and secret distiller/smuggler named Magnus Eunson, about whom there are plenty of charming and roguish stories that, in the grand tradition of liquor, are likely all between 50 and 100% untrue. Nonetheless, the story goes, he was distilling on that spot in Kirkwall, and finding amusing and blasphemous ways to hide the liquor from the taxmen until they finally arrested him.
In 1818, a straw-plaiter named Robert Bordwick felt like a legitimate distillery could succeed as a business, and together with his son-in-law John Robertson (Eunson’s arresting officer, as it turns out) bought Eunson’s land on High Park and officially founded Highland Park. They built what is still the current distillery, received their license in 1826, and have been distilling more or less continuously since then. In the last 188 years the company has passed through more sets of hands than I care to list, and has since 1999 been owned by the medium-sized Edringer Group, who also own Macallan.
There’s a little variation among the individual bottlings, but what they all have in common is that they’re all (1) peated, and they (2) use sherry-seasoned casks for aging. This is not a terribly common combination, and one that has me personally coming back to Highland Park again and again:
Spanish Sherry-seasoned Oak: they source all their oak, at least for the standard line, from Northern Spain (the limited edition 15 is American oak). The staves are air-dried as opposed to kiln dried (like our friends at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky), as air-dried wood is universally agreed to be better — it gives the harsh tannic quality in the wood a chance to mellow out. They then make barrels and fill them with dry Oloroso sherry for 2-3 years. By the time they’re emptied, some 11 liters of sherry have saturated the wood, waiting to add spice and dried fruit richness to the scotch.
Local Peat: Highland Park is one of the few distilleries who still malt a proportion of their own barley (about 20%), which they then kiln dry with local Orcadian peat. Because of the climate, their peat is all moss and grass, and gives a distinctive heathery floral note to the finished spirit. They smoke it to about 20 phenol parts-per-million (ppm) over 16 hours, before mixing it with unpeated malt they contract from one of the malting houses on the mainland. This lowers their total peat levels to about 4-6ppm once bottled, which is very low, and it’s kind of amazing that the flavor translates so well.
Also, for what it’s worth: Michael Jackson (the legendary beer and whiskey writer, not the legendary pop singer) wrote of Highland Park that it’s “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky.” In Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, the 12 and 25 won best single malt in their respective categories for 2014, and F. Paul Pacult of Spirit Journal has retired the Highland Park 18 from competition, calling it “the best spirit in the world.” So there’s that.
Highland Park 12: It has a pronounced sweetness like salted caramel that gets a little bit stone-fruity, and a nice lingering peat smoke with a little depth. All in all, somewhat light. Vanilla. Not at all bad, but especially tasting it next to older versions I’d be very happy to put it back in the barrel for a few more years.
Would I buy it?: Yeah, but there are 12 year olds I like more.
Highland Park 15: No longer available outside U.S. Being phased out. This is made in American wood as opposed to Spanish wood, 35% first fill sherry barrels. Creamy, vanilla. There’s no sign of that leather I get a little of in the 12 and a lot of in the 18. Cinnamon spicy, like red hots, but also has a cool grassy element. This was the favorite of many at the tasting.
Cost: ~$80, if you can find it
Would I buy it?: Yes, if only because it won’t be around anymore.
Highland Park 18: My definite favorite of the Seven Grand tasting. It’s got a really nice raisiny sweetness from the sherry, but enough leathery depth to keep me coming back. Floral heather mixes with enough peat smoke to make me take notice. I can’t get enough of that dark leathery oak and smoke, like sinking into a comfortable chair in a dim cigar lounge. This, to me, tastes like whisky should taste.
Would I buy it?: Absolutely. One of the best $100 you can spend on whiskey.
Highland Park Freya: Part of their “Valhalla Collection” limited bottlings. 51.2%, 15 years in bourbon casks. Sweetness is more candied, almost like gum (this comment invited mockery from the brand ambassador, but I swear it tastes like Juicyfruit). Strong fruity spice. Peat is a bit subdued and the texture is a bit waxy. A surprise from the others. No dark elements at all. Tasty. Interesting.
Would I buy it?: Absolutely not. Way too much money.
Highland Park 30: Bonus! I went home and had a small glass of this while the others were fresh in my head. All that time in sherry barrels gives it a stronger dried fruit nose, but on the palate it’s all peat, leather, and caramel. Texture is concentrated, a little buttery. After a minute the caramel becomes a little raisinated. New elements keep popping into the mingling of sweetness and peat and oak. It’s not really fair to compare, but this is my favorite. Obvi.
Cost: A lot.
Would I Buy It?: Only on the most special of occasions, to be enjoyed with close friends.
Distillery: Old Bushmills Distilling
Location: Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Owned By: Diageo
Major Products produced: Bushmills, Black Bush, Bushmills Single Malt 10, —16, and —21
Origin: Founded in 1784. Distilling off and on since then.
A Quick Word:
If there were a single misapprehension I could correct in the average drinker, it’s the naïve and somewhat touching belief that the most popular thing is the most popular because it is the best. It’s sweet, really, this inclination toward justice, but the world of liquor is not a meritocracy. Not even close.
I say that to say this: there is one big reason that everyone thinks Jameson is the Irish Whiskey, and everything else is just a cheap echo thereof. And while Jameson does make some tasty products, that reason has nothing to do with either the quality or the flavor of the whiskey itself.
The year 1608 proudly adorns every bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting like a foundation stone above the brand name itself, implicitly suggesting that Bushmills has been around since 1608. This is false — weirdly, brazenly false. While someone in Northern Ireland got a distillation license in 1608, it wasn’t Bushmills. The Bushmills company wouldn’t be even founded until 1784, a 176 years later. Just to clear that up.
(Seriously, they could’ve been founded seventy-six years earlier, and they’d still miss the 1608 date by a hundred fucking years. Once again, please ignore all historical claims from liquor companies. The ones that aren’t half-truths are outright lies, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what the liquor actually tastes like.)
Here’s the history that actually matters: in the beginning of the 20th century Irish whiskey was terrifically popular, with 20+ distilleries operating at full bore. But the twin punches of Prohibition and WWII left the industry bloodied and meager, and by the mid ’60s there were just a handful of distilleries left. To weather the times, Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilling companies merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, and set about consolidating resources. In 1972, they acquired Bushmills, making Irish Distillers the only whiskey company in Ireland, a total monopoly that would last some 15 years, and a near-monopoly that would last 15 more.
So why is Bushmills overlooked? Because by the time Irish Distillers scooped up Bushmills, they had already chosen their favorite son: they built a new Jameson distillery next to the old one, opened it in 1975, and put their resources behind it. Even more, once French liquor giant Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers in 1988, they jumped on Jameson — the lightest of the whiskies — and marketed it toward vodka drinkers. “Take it as a shot! Try it with some apple pucker!” Jameson got all the attention and popularity, and Bushmills got a black hoodie and an eating disorder.
In 2005, Pernod Ricard unloaded Bushmills on their archnemesis Diageo, who haven’t pushed it much. But apparently, they’re beginning to start, because they recently sent a couple guys to San Diego to talk to us about it.
People who love Irish whiskey call it “smooth” and “mild.” People who don’t call it “boring” and “effete.” And they’re both right, because they’re describing precisely the same thing. Generally, people who like their barley-based spirits lighter will go Irish. Heavier, they’ll go scotch.
Bushmills aims to bridge that gap, by offering higher malt, fuller flavored whiskeys that still retain their essential Irish smoothness. All their products are distilled three times in pot stills, ultimately to between 58.5%-60.5%, and all are aged in some mixture of used bourbon and used Olorosso sherry casks (the mixture varies for each product).
Bushmills Original || Aged 5 years minimum.
Light and fruity at first. A little buttery with spice. There’s an essential grainy lightness that is distractingly light/mild. Like there should be something there. A pear flavor takes over toward the end, a long-ish finish of spiced pear.
Overall: not bad at all, if mild for my taste. The fruit could use some richness to back it up.
Black Bush || Aged 7 years minimum. Unusually high percentage of malt whiskeys(80% malt, 20% grain.)
This fills in nicely that hole I tasted in the Bushmills Original. This is the product they’re pushing hard, and you can taste why — a one-time favorite of mine, back when I used to drink more Irish whiskey. More sherry influence, with apricot and apple backed up by a slight — slight — richness.
Overall: this is one of the better Irish whiskies out there, especially for the price. As a malt/grain blend, I’d put this at a respectable 2nd place behind Redbreast.
Bushmills 10 Pure Malt || Aged 10 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.
Here’s where we start getting to Bushmills real strength, their 100% malt whiskey. This has no light grain blended in, and it shows — it’s got the same essential flavors, just more robust. Cooked apples. Honey. Melon. Tingly spice. My notes say “apple-y as fuck.” Pear. That fruit really comes through.
Overall: this is my favorite of the lot, and the one that best showcases the strength of this particular distillery. Recommended.
Bushmills 16 Pure Malt || Aged 16 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 6-9 months in Port wine casks.
The port shows itself here, along with more alcohol heat. Raisins & honey, oak and heat were the dominant flavors. These are rich flavors but without much richness in the whiskey itself, it didn’t land for me. “Not much force,” I wrote.
Overall: a different set of flavors to be sure, but this one missed the mark for me… though I should say that it was the favorite of many at the tasting, so take that for what it’s worth.
Bushmills 21 Pure Malt || Aged 21 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.
Finally, here we have some richness, more from the wood I’m sure than the malt. That same signature fruit/spice is familiar, but with much more presence. Darker, richer, and more textured. Honey, almond, spice. The sherry influence itself is surprisingly subtle, perhaps muted by the wood. Cinnamon redhots finish (light).
Overall: tasty to be sure, a great choice for Irish whiskey fans who also happen to be hedge-fund managers. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine spending $120 on this. Good though.
The Prologue: Here’s Your Fucking Mojito
As a bartender, I’ve always hated mojitos.
The very word “mojito” has the power to make me shudder. More often than not, I have to fight the urge to say “here’s your fucking mojito” when I drop one off. I know bartenders who have purposefully made horrific mojitos so they won’t be asked to make another — Splenda instead of sugar, Branca Menta instead of mint, etc — and I have celebrated these people as heroes.
I grind my teeth at the dictional and ontological contortions involved in the question, “do you have mojitos?,” and can’t help but scowl at the flinching apology face everyone always gives when they order them.
I really hate mojitos.
The weird thing is, it’s mostly vestigial. There was a time when it was the most annoying drink a bartender would be asked to make, but now it doesn’t even crack the top 20. And yet. Hate.
I can mutter about them them all day, however, and it will have no bearing whatsoever on their two eternal truths:
- Whether Havana in July or Manitoba in January, they will be ordered in all occasions until the end of time.
- Unlike a Long Island, or Tokyo Tea or Scooby Snack or any of the other drinks favored by that particular cohort, mojitos don’t suck. At all. Mojitos are, actually, intrinsically delicious.
Point #2 can be a problem all its own — if precision isn’t required to make a good drink, it’s too easy to be satisfied with good and not reach for great. And this is where our story begins.
I wrote it all out, but then erased it because I honestly don’t care. The mojito, like a whiskey sour or Tom Collins, isn’t invented so much as inevitable: mint grows where limes and sugar cane grow, and soda water because it’s damn hot outside. If, as a culture, you’ve got all that stuff and you never think to put them together, I’m sorry but you don’t get to come out to play.
Just know this: it’s from Cuba, and it shows up in print in the 30s. If you need more history than that, David Wondrich does the best job, as usual, here.
The only interesting thing is the etymology: mojar is the verb “to make wet” or “moisten,” and in Cuban Spanish, “mojo” means “sauce.” So a mojito is “a little sauce” or “a little wetness” which, if you remember that “dry” also can mean “without alcohol,” starts to make some sense.
The Good vs. The Great:
That Good vs. Great thing has always been my problem with mojitos. My recipe was fine, and certainly gets the job done, but I wanted better. And I thought, a few weeks ago, maybe I’d feel better about the drink if I knew, without a doubt, that my mojito was so goddamn delicious that that it would force people to stop and take notice. To tap their friend on the shoulder and say “you’ve got to try this.”
So I did experiments. A lot of them. And after at least 30 iterations spread over two weeks, I dialed in what I believe to be the best mojito recipe in the world, and in the process became tediously familiar with every ingredient, and all their variations.
I am operating under the assumption that the mojito is, first and most, a refreshing drink. That means it can’t be too sweet, lest it be cloying, nor too tart, or the mint won’t come out. It should be shaken — all the built-in-the-glass recipes, even over crushed ice, were too viscous.
It’s important to note that 95% of the drinks I made were good, and so some of this inevitably falls to personal taste. But following these principles, I set out to find the best.
Rum. Limes. Sugar. Mint. Carbonated Water.
RUM: Flor de Cana 4yr silver rum
Use a Spanish style, clear/silver/white rum. What’s Spanish style? It’s an oversimplification of course, but if your rum is from a Spanish speaking country and/or is called “Ron,” it’s Spanish style. It will be light and clean. And probably <$20, which is even better.
An identical side-by-side with Flor de Cana (silver), Banks 5 (silver), Plantation 5 (amber), and El Dorado 15 (dark) yielded not just a winner, but an obvious winner. While Plantation 5 makes my favorite daiquiri, the unavoidable caramel/spice notes in aged rums have no business in tall, refreshing drinks. I love the funk of Banks 5, but it distracted the palate here. With the El Dorado one, a little more rum and less soda would’ve made a handsome drink, but a mojito it ain’t.
I then tried Flor de Cana, a 40%, fairly standard Nicaraguan rum, against the robust Caña Brava,at 43%. I earnestly expected Caña Brava to be the winner, and it was close… it seemed better at first, but after a minute and a little more dilution Flor de Cana surged ahead. To be clear: they were both deliriously good, but my guiding principle was refreshment, and in the end the extra ABV points on Caña Brava took away more than it added.
LIME: fresh lime juice
This was the least examined part, as there’s nothing even close to fresh lime juice. A bunch of cocktail nerds figured out a few years ago that the enzymatic bittering of juiced limes somehow mitigates a little of the lime’s sourness and that limes juiced 4 hours ago are better than limes fresh squeezed. If you feel like timing your drinking to stay 4 hours ahead of your lime juice, go with God. I wish you all the best.
MINT: 6-8 mint leaves, not muddled, shaken with ice in the drink
This was maybe my biggest surprise in the whole thing. It is gospel in the cocktail world: do not over muddle mint. “If you press it too hard,” they say, “you break the little capillaries in the mint leaf and release bitter chlorophyll, thereby ruining your drink.” I’ve lived by this law for years. Until I tried them side by side. One, I over muddled the mint. The other, gentle pressing. The gently pressed mint barely registered, and to my great surprise, the one I practically jackhammered, where I was expecting bitterness, instead presented a full, delicious mint flavor.
Then I shook the mint with ice, and my god: the mint flavor is so much more pervasive and intense, buttressing every point of the palate. Then I took about 3 minutes and tried to over muddle the mint. I muddled the silly fuck out of that mint, then shook it, and still there’s not a single off-putting note in the drink. You cannot overmuddle mint. Please, someone, prove me wrong.
Then, in the spirit of anti-stone-unturnedness, I tried mega mint: 20 leaves instead of 8. It was, predictably, too much. 6-10 leaves, or one small pinch, is magic.
Oh, and there’s no difference between muddling then shaking, and just shaking without muddling. I tried that too. Save yourself the step.
SUGAR: sugar cane, demerara or muscovado syrup
It’s too much with aged rum, but there’s something perfectly soft and subtle about those molassas flavors when they come from cane syrup, or a demerara/muscovado syrup. They are processed much less than white sugar, and add a rustic layer of personality, like a coat of dust on the harvest jeans.
As we learned with the Southside experiments, fresh mint is always better than mint syrup. But some recipes, like the Employees Only one, double down and use both fresh mint and mint syrup. After all, if mint is good, wouldn’t double mint double your delightment? The answer is no. The mint offers a clean flavor; adding mint syrup only muddies it up.
SPARKLING WATER: highly carbonated mineral water
Q Soda and Fever Tree are the expensive good ones, and Topo Chico and Mineragua are the cheaper good ones. You want high carbonation and some dissolved sodium to make the flavors pop. If you want to know why, I did a best sparkling water write-up here.
ICE: crushed ice
Even when you shake it (and you should), the drink benefits from crushed ice. It’s not strictly necessary, but it keeps the inside cold and well diluted, and the outside frosty. No matter the pace of your drinking, the recipe below will stay good to the end.
The Best Mojito In The World:
Look upon it, barkeeps, and despair.
2oz Flor de Cana silver rum
0.75oz demerara or muscovado simple syrup (1:1)
0.75 fresh lime
2.5oz-3oz mineral water
6-10 mint leaves.
Add all ingredients except mineral water, including mint, to the shaker. Add ice, shake to high heaven for 10-12 seconds. Fine strain over crushed ice into a collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig. Drink. Then find me, and shake my hand.
How big of a role, if any at all, does the base ingredient play in the final character of vodka?
The Necessary Justification:
Yes, I’m really writing about vodka.
Here’s the thing — everyone in the craft cocktail world seems to have the same two things to say about vodka:
- Vodka is a spirit without any real character or distinction, and therefore
- There’s no difference between vodkas.
Point #1 is true by definition. Point #2 isn’t true at all.
Vodka is distilled to at least 95% alcohol. When it’s distilled to 95%, one (specious but nonetheless workable) way to look at it is that there’s only 5% flavor left (see Trivia, at bottom). 99 times out of 100, vodka marketing pretends there’s no flavor at all, focusing instead on what it doesn’t taste like, which is hard if what it doesn’t taste like is everything. This is why they all try to bludgeon you to death with the word “smooth.”
I’ll say that what distinctions do exist are easily drowned out by cranberry juice or even tonic water. But taken neat at room temperature, there are surprisingly significant differences: you find that Absolut is relatively viscous and Russian Standard is impressively neutral, that Ketel One has a tongue-numbing bluntness and Ciroc smells like acetone but actually tastes pretty good.
The Necessary Disclaimer:
I’m not saying vodkas are interesting. They’re not. They are, as spirits, savagely fucking dull. After all my tastings and experiments, my official line remains: if you mix it with anything hardier than soda water, buy Sobieski/Svedka/Smirnoff for like 8 dollars and never look back.
So why do any of this? Because science, that’s why. I’d rather actually know the answer than imagine I know it.
There are a galaxy of factors that can make one spirit taste different from another, and because of this, it’s nearly impossible to hold one production decision accountable for any individual flavor or characteristic.
However — Chopin recently debuted wheat and rye vodkas to complement their famous potato vodka. So if we taste them side by side, we can deduce what role the raw ingredients really play in the final flavor of neutral spirits.
Note: I can’t help but want to shake the hand of whoever decided, in the last few years, that what America wanted was more wheat-based products. Distillation removes the gluten protein, but still: I haven’t seen corporate balls like that since Taco Bell introduced a potato burrito in the middle of the Atkins hysteria.
Assumptions: from all I can tell, they use the same yeast, same overall fermentation process, same distillation process, and same filtering for their whole line. The only variable is what they’re made from. So question: how much does base ingredient matter?
nose: Wet newspaper. Strangely enough, it kind of smells like potatoes. Sliced, raw potato. Grainy.
taste: Hot. A little sweetness, like cakebread. Tastes better than it smells. Lemon frosting.
nose: Wet newspaper again. Stale bread.
taste: Drier. That cakebread business is gone. Some faint citrus on the finish. Still a bit of sweetness mid-palate, but nothing like the potato. Dusty grain.
nose: Dried newspaper. These all smell like fiber. The filtering, maybe? The yeast?
taste: Drier still. Very faint sweetness. Extremely impressive neutrality. No flavors really stand out. I detect faint lime on finish, but it might my imagination.
How interesting. Here, with vodka, distilled and filtered within an inch of its life, we still have fairly sizable distinctions between the bottles. A couple things worth noting:
(1) All three have a distinct wet/dry newspaper nose, which I’m betting is their yeast. Either that, or all three got cork contamination, but then this project is totally screwed.
(2) Potato seems to give a perceived sweetness that I find very pleasant, if while being hot (read: alcohol burn) at the same time.
(3) I was looking for spice in the rye, as rye whiskies are generally spicier than their corn and wheat cousins. But nothing. Mostly, I got a sense of the dusty graininess (also frequently seen in rye whiskey).
(4) This is why almost everyone makes vodka from wheat. If neutrality is the point — and for most people, it is — wheat is the most demure of all our cereal grains. The others have character. It may take some teasing out, but it’s there. But for wheat, especially tasting it last, I couldn’t help but define it by all that wasn’t there.
And here, finally, the inevitable problem with rating vodkas. What do you want from it? Many would want it to taste as close to nothing as possible, so the wheat is best. Personally, I like things that are interesting, so I’d go potato. Take it for what it’s worth.
Trivia: The reason it’s specious to say that liquid distilled to 95% ABV only has 5% flavor is that different alcohols (part of the 95%) have flavors and textures all their own. Both the heads (harmful, isopropyl-smelling) and tails (pungent and heavy,called “fusel oils” because they chemically resemble oil) are alcohol, and their levels in the final product will influence it as much as anything else ever could. Facts!